So. Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman.
I'll confess up front that I haven't seen her in anything. The only one of the Fast and the Furious films I saw was the first one, which was a perfectly serviceable mindless action movie of the sort Vin Diesel is very good at appearing in. My only memory of it is the bit where the car drives under a semi. I assume the subsequent movies are memorable in exactly the same ways.
Which is to point out what everybody with a brain and a keyboard already has, which is that there's nothing in her resume that inspires confidence. This is not in and of itself a problem - Lynda Carter had a thin resume as well, and she was phenomenal in the part. Everybody has a big break.
And I'm not one of the people who's intrinsically down on the movie because it's a Zack Snyder film. I like Snyder, and think he's largely misunderstood. I liked Man of Steel. The problem is that everything I liked about Man of Steel is also a reason why it's a terrible cornerstone to try to build a big DC Universe franchise out of. I liked Man of Steel for being a cynical take on Superman that was the first well thought out response to Grant Morrison's stuff to date. And I still think it was that.
And it's the director of Sucker Punch doing Wonder Woman. And I think Sucker Punch is a flooringly brutal, angry feminist film that was criminally misunderstood. It's one of my favorite movies of the last decade. And while I don't imagine the director of Sucker Punch is going to make a straightforward and iconic Wonder Woman movie, there are many ways in which the prospect of a Wonder Woman movie from him just sounds phenomenally exciting. I want to see his take on Wonder Woman.
The thing is, that's not what this is going to be. Wonder Woman seems to be in the movie as part of a commitment to establishing a DC Cinematic Universe to rival Marvel's. And Snyder's the wrong guy to do that. He does angry deconstructions, where what you need here are the iconic, straightforward takes on characters carefully and well-executed. Man of Steel was, for me, a great Superman movie, but it's an awful start to an ongoing Superman franchise. And I can't help but fear Wonder Woman will end up in a similar position here. And given that she, unlike Batman and Superman, doesn't have a history of coming back again and again in film, that's worrisome, because as many have pointed out, this is probably the only chance we'll get for ten or twenty year.s
But all of that has little to do with Gal Gadot, who is taking on a role with a lot of expectations. I hope she nails it. And while I have no reason to think she will, I also have no reason to think she won't.
You have bought A Golden Thread by now, yes?
Saturday, December 7, 2013
Friday, December 6, 2013
|Shooty daughter thing|
It’s May 10th, 2008. Madonna and Justin Timberlake are at number one. Pendulum, Flo Rida, and Usher also chart. In news, the Federal Reserve notes that banks are increasing standards on loans as the subprime mortgage crisis gathers steam. Bertie Ahern, Taoiseach of Ireland, resigns after nearly eleven years as head of government, and Dmitry Medvedev becomes President of Russia. Barack Obama thumps Hillary Clinton in the North Carolina Primary, leading Tim Russert to declare that it is clear who is going to win, and turning Clinton’s campaign into a strange sort of zombie, which, to be fair, anyone who was looking at the numbers realized was true months ago.
Commemorating her stubbornness, Doctor Who airs The Doctor’s Daughter. The definition of insanity, or, at least, the one trotted out for rhetorical purposes, is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. In Davies’s defense, he does not actually repeat the exact same stretch of episodes four through seven as he did in Season Three; he goes to Gareth Roberts instead of Chris Chibnall. Nevertheless, it’s tough to see why Davies decided to go with a Helen Raynor monster two-parter followed by a Stephen Greenhorn script for the second season in a row. And unsurprisingly, it works about as well as it did the first time, which is to say not really at all.
The Doctor’s Daughter is interesting in part because it’s the most sci-fi story the new series has done in some time. This is a story that hinges on an entirely sci-fi riddle based purely on the interplay of imaginary concepts. One has to not only follow the good old “science concepts become mythology through generations of oral folklore” premise from stuff like The Face of Evil, one has to get the secondary realization that all of this has happened in a week. These are not hugely difficult and advanced concepts, to be sure - I doubt a significant portion of the audience was confused - but it’s still focused on sci-fi concepts in a way the new series rarely is. Certainly it’s difficult to think of another Davies-era story that works like this.
In many ways it’s a throwback to the classic series, although it’s tough to pin down a specific bit of the series. The aesthetics of the story are all very Saward-era - lots of military people shooting lots of stuff and the Doctor thrown in the middle of it. But under the hood this is the sort of thing you’d find in the Williams era - a morality play framed around the interplay of sci-fi concepts - something like Underworld or The Pirate Planet. In terms of those concepts, it feels most like Christopher Bidmead, albeit not in his “let’s play with mathematics” phase of Logopolis and Castrovalva, but rather in terms of the stuff he oversaw like Full Circle, or his later Frontios. But even this is part of an older tradition going back to stuff like The Web Planet and The Space Museum where the story is structured around answering the question “what are the rules of this world?” Like The Sontaran Stratagem/The Poison Sky, in other words, this is the sort of story that ought to appeal to people who bemoan the way in which the new series has fallen away from how the classic series worked.
Instead it’s widely hated. As with the previous story, there are sensible and easily identifiable reasons why the approach fails. Stories about figuring out how a world works work best when the world works according to striking and interesting images. The Face of Evil - one of the best examples of this sort of thing - hinges on the weird juxtaposition of scientific technology and primitive tribes, bound together by the supremely gripping spectacle of a giant stone face of the Doctor that’s being worshipped by the Sevateem. Frontios - another classic - hinges on the horrifying body horror and eccentric, twisted spaces of the planet’s interior. In all of the classic series stories like this that work, in other words, there are hooks that get us invested in the world.
Here, however, the world is… rather drab. The idea of cloning soldiers to deal with the massively high death toll of a war isn’t bad, but there’s not that much mystery to it. How the world works is fairly obvious, and, crucially, the revelation that it’s only been a week since the ship crashed isn’t actually that revelatory. It doesn’t change anything significant about how the world works. The resolution would have been identical if it has been a week or a millennium since the ship crashed, just so long as you still have a functioning ship. (And there’s no reason you wouldn’t, since it’s all made up and thus the ship can last as long as you want.) The concept never gets developed in an interesting or unexpected direction.
I’m not inclined to blame the forty-five minute format for that. Yes, it has half as much time as a traditional four-parter to establish things, but the new series also abandons many of the padding techniques that plague the classic series and, within any given scene, moves considerably faster. It’s not like the new series can’t flesh out a reasonably complex concept in forty-five minutes. Look at how detailed the puzzle in Blink is. No, the problem is that the central spectacle of this episode is Jenny, not the sci-fi concepts. They don’t have any room to breathe because the story is so caught up in its titular premise that the sci-fi mystery that’s advancing the actual plot only half-registers.
This once again comes perilously close to “don’t let emotions get into my sci-fi show,” but in this case there’s a fairly straightforward refutation to that claim, which is that it’s really just “don’t let poorly written emotions get into my sci-fi show.” Because, of course, the Doctor’s daughter is a blatant feint. There’s no substance to it. You’d be more than slightly hard pressed to identify a single regard in which Jenny actually resembles the Doctor. She’s not a character set up to extend from him - she’s not clever and prone to questioning everything. She’s slightly less violent than the other soldiers and she can do cool backflips, but the only way in which she resembles the Doctor is that she’s got special powers, essentially. All she does throughout the story is ask questions that seem to challenge the premises of the series, but that have weight only because the Doctor never gives any of the perfectly sensible replies. “You’re using it to fight back,” Jenny says. “Yes, but I’m actively trying not to kill people,” the Doctor inexplicably doesn’t. “You fought and killed? Then how are we different,” she demands. “I regret it and stopped killing people,” he fails to reply. And so on. It’s an argument that only works because one side isn’t allowed to give any of the stunningly obvious responses available to them.
And, of course, in the end Jenny exists only to get killed. This is a point so drably predictable that Steven Moffat called Davies out on it, pointing out that introducing major new character who alters the status quo of the series and then immediately killing them off at the end of the episode is very Star Trek. Davies proceeded to change the ending so that Jenny survived. But the result is just a cheap “introduce a major new character and then kill her off” episode with a resurrection tacked onto the end, as opposed to something that actually addresses the problem, which is that Jenny is neutered by her very inability to have any impact on proceedings.
Which is not to say that stories like this can’t work. In giving the brief to Greenhorn, Davies wanted, it seems, a story in the vein of Human Nature/The Family of Blood or The Girl in the Fireplace - a character drama in which the Doctor has to respond to different things than usual. But Greenhorn didn’t write one. Instead he wrote a superficial morality play that gave Tennant virtually nothing to do beyond be cranky a bunch, and that had the same basic ending as Last of the Time Lords, only with a horrifyingly bad speech about “a man who never would.”
The result is a story that’s bad in the same way that 70s Terry Nation stories that weren’t heavily rewritten by Robert Holmes are bad, which is to say, because the writer just doesn’t seem to be very good at writing Doctor Who. Greenhorn’s scripts are both sci-fi cliches with a handful of emotional scenes shoehorned in. In neither case do the emotional bits actually have anything to do with the sci-fi. They’re just sci-fi scripts where characters emote. He’s a writer who just didn’t work out. And unlike Helen Raynor, who proved her writing chops on Torchwood and then got given a pair of Doctor Who scripts that played to none of her strengths, there’s no real evidence that Greenhorn has a wheelhouse the scripts were missing. Greenhorn asked in an interview for a story that would allow the Doctor to change instead of just changing the world around him. He got given an opportunity to write exactly what he wanted. And he whiffed it.
Perhaps the story could have been made to work with a Davies rewrite. But Greenhorn is one of the writers who’s run his own show and who thus doesn’t get rewritten by Davies. And even if he had, the problems are pretty deep-lying, in that the emotional content and the plot don’t have any obvious connections. The supposed point was to give the Doctor a new perspective on the Time War, but…
Well, actually, this becomes apropos following The Day of the Doctor. It’s often been observed that one of Davies’s real innovations in bringing the series back was destroying Gallifrey and having the Doctor be the last of his kind. Which is true; that was a major improvement, especially given how poor Gallifrey-based stories historically were. It gave the Doctor a new way to relate to Gallifrey, and gave the show some real energy for several seasons. The problem is that Gallifrey remained in the form of its absence. There was just a Gallifrey-shaped hole in proceedings. And all the Doctor could do with relation to the Gallifrey-shaped hole was be upset that he was the last of his kind. It was a new direction, but it was a fundamentally limiting one.
And in the end that’s where The Doctor’s Daughter really falters. Because it conceives of the idea of the Doctor having a daughter only in terms of him being upset about the Time War. And in the end, there are so many more things to do with the idea of the Doctor having a daughter than having him angst further about being the last of the Time Lords. But when you have the overwhelming weight of the Time War going on there’s no other way for the story to play out. The Master has similar problems in this period - any story he’s in has to be about his status as the other Time Lord. There becomes only one story to tell.
Which is to say that in many ways The Doctor’s Daughter is the point at which the necessity of restoring Gallifrey starts to become obvious. Because as bad as the allure of the stupid Gallifreyan epics that plagued the wilderness years was for the show, this is limiting too, and in just the same way. The Doctor gets stuck in one form of reaction - post-traumatic guilt. It’s not that there’s nothing more interesting to do with the Time War after this point - there are at least two more properly good Time War stories between this and The Day of the Doctor. But it does mean that the problems with the Time War as a concept are beginning to show, and that it’s beginning to cause harm as well as have benefits. You can’t blame the Time War for this story’s problems - it has plenty of others without it. But at the end of the day, even if you’d matched the sci-fi premise to the emotional premise, even if you’d gotten rid of the dumb pseudo-moralizing, even if you’d fixed every other problem with this story, you’d still end up with a story that thinks the most interesting thing about fatherhood is angst about being the last of your kind.
Thursday, December 5, 2013
This is the third of seven parts of Chapter Four of The Last War in Albion, covering Alan Moore's work onDoctor Who and Star Wars from 1980-81. An ebook omnibus of all seven parts, sans images, is available in ebook form from Amazon, Amazon UK, and Smashwords for $2.99. The ebook contains a coupon code you can use to get my recent book A Golden Thread: An Unofficial Critical History of Wonder Woman for $3 off on Smashwords (the code's at the end of the introduction). It's a deal so good you make a penny off of it. If you enjoy the project, please consider buying a copy of the omnibus to help support it.
"Increasingly observers describe the War as a shape rather than a secquence of events, a map of causality." - Lawrence Miles, The Book of the War
PREVIOUSLY IN THE LAST WAR IN ALBION: Alan Moore was given his first straight writing job - backup comics for Doctor Who Weekly - on the recommendation of his friend Steve Moore. His first two stories were four-parters constructed of two-page chapters, but even in this early work hallmarks of Moore's iconic style...
|Figure 157: Sinister smiling figures stepping noiselessly|
forward in Doctor Who Weekly #41 (Alan Moore and David
What’s immediately interesting about Moore’s early Doctor Who work is that his second story is no less metered in its narrative, but that it has an entirely different tone. Where Black Legacy sticks mostly to iambic tone, Business as Usual goes for dactyls and trochees, as with the line, “NO one RAISED an EYEbrow when BLUNT inVESTed his CAPital in FOUNDing his OWN PLASTics COMPany. IT was JUST SOUND BUSiness.” Again, the meter is not strict, but it repeatedly puts the emphasis at the beginnings of phrases, favoring three-syllable feet with words like “capital” and “company.” These longer feet give the work a very different feel, as does the triple stressed syllable in “just sound business,” which draws considerable attention to that specific and seemingly mundane phrase, quietly exposing the underlying deception, namely that, far from being ordinary sound business, Blunt’s decision is in fact part and parcel of an alien invasion. Black Legacy feels clipped, and like it’s working in a more classical, epic sense, where Business as Usual sounds mundane and conversational. It’s slightly too wordy, resembling the obfuscatory language of stereotypical corporate jargon. Business as Usual also features, in places, highly alliterative phrasing such as “the sinister, smiling figure steps noiselessly forward. Behind, in the shadows, something stirs.” In twenty-three syllables Moore manages to get nine that feature an s sound. The effect fits perfectly into the milieu of sales and corporate branding that the larger story utilizes, highlighting its satirical bite.
But for all the cleverness of these two stories and all that Moore learned from the two-page chapter structure, it is, in the end, a limitation. Business as Usual suffers badly from having to recap its basic premise every other page. Where the first chapter can luxuriate in its droll humor and contrasts, once it has to start recapping its tone in a page or two it falters badly. On top of that, the fact that Moore is stuck writing Doctor Who stories without Doctor Who in them is a problem. Using the Autons as a comment on 1980s corporate culture is a phenomenal idea. Indeed, when Russell T Davies brought the Autons back for the first episode of the 2005 Doctor Who revival he almost directly apes Moore’s central joke, having Doctor Who explain to his companion, who speculates that the aliens are “trying to take over Britain’s shops,” that “it’s not a price war. They want to overthrow the human race.” But with eight pages and no Doctor Who there’s not much that Moore can do beyond have it descend into a fairly basic story about a man and an evil alien fighting and blowing things up. It’s not that Moore handles it badly so much as that there’s something of an upper bound to the inventiveness available to a story told in four two-page chapters.
|Figure 158: It is ambiguous, in this Fantastic Fact, whether the man or the|
leg is called Bumper Harris.
This two page structure, however, was a peculiar artifact of where Doctor Who Weekly was at the time. The final installment of Business as Usual appeared in Doctor Who Weekly #43, the last issue before it abandoned weekly publication and rebranded as Doctor Who Monthly. As Doctor Who Weekly the magazine was primarily a comics magazine, cramming in reprints of old Marvel stories as “Dr. Who’s Time Tales” and reprints of 1960s Dalek strips alongside pages like “Fantastic Facts,” which dutifully informed the reader of such important if contextless facts like that “the egg of the ostrich is six to seven inches long and (if you were thinking of having one for breakfast) they take 40 minutes to boil.” As part of the profusion of comic strips the backup feature for the final few months was shortened to two-page chapters from its previously longer length, making it a particularly unattractive strip. The overall package was twenty-eight pages long, and sold for 12p.
Come issue #44, with the magazine renamed Doctor Who Monthly, the magazine expanded to thirty-six pages, jumped to 30p, and began featuring more detailed behind-the-scenes features and synopses of old stories. Sillier features like Fantastic Facts persisted, but the comics were pared back to two features, a main one starring Doctor Who and a backup feature, initially the tail end of Steve Moore’s Star Tigers. By the time of Moore’s final contribution in Doctor Who Monthly #57 silly features like “Fantastic Facts” were banished entirely, and instead the magazine was comprised almost entirely of behind-the-scenes features and retrospectives on the program. Over this transformative year Moore published three further backup features: “Star Death,” “The 4-D War,” and “Black Sun Rising.” These three stories are typically described as the 4D War Cycle, and tell related but bespoke stories about a war fought by the Time Lords against the mysterious Order of the Black Sun.
|Figure 159: John Stokes opts to avoid fully revealing the face of the ancient |
Time Lord named Rassilon, but his appearance clearly evokes that of a wizard.
(Alan Moore and John Stokes, "Star Death," Doctor Who Monthly #47, 1981)
The first of these stories, “Star Death,” goes back to the earliest days of the Time Lords (Doctor Who’s species) - indeed, to the very point at which they became lords of time, namely their harnessing of the energy of Qqaba, a star in the process of collapsing into a black hole. Their preparations are interrupted by a mercenary named Fenris, who has traveled back in time to undo the Time Lords by sabotaging their experiments by disrupting the “protective haloes” keeping the Gallifreyans’ ships from plunging into the black hole. But Fenris’s sabotage is stopped when Rassilon, the force behind the Gallifreyan experiments into black holes, proves unexpectedly able to reactivate the haloes with his mind. Rassilon calmly dispatches Fenris with lightning from his finger (‘he would call it electro-direction. We would call it magic.”) knocking off his belt so that he cannot control his time travel anymore, resulting in him having his atoms “spread from one end of eternity to the other.” But though the basic power of time travel is now the Gallifeyans’, they still have not created a means of controlling their travel. Rassilon, meanwhile, ponders the belt he shot off of Fenris, and calmly takes the directional control off of it in order to create the desired means, thus creating a neat little temporal paradox.
|Figure 160: Wardog is|
impressively stoic. (Alan
Moore and David Lloyd,
"4-D War," Doctor Who
Monthly #51, 1981)
The second, “4-D War,” takes place twenty years after “Star Death,” and features Rema-Du, the daughter of two of the characters in that story, teaming up with Wardog, a member of the Special Executive, to plunge into the void and retrieve Fenris so he can be interrogated and the Time Lords can find out who attacked them. They do so, but just as the Time Lords discover the names of their opponents, the Order of the Black Sun, the Order itself shows up en masse, killing eleven (including Fenris) and severing Wardog’s arm. (When this is pointed out to him, he laconically responds, “Great God, my Lady! So they have!”) When Rema-Du anguishedly demands to know why this has happened, proclaiming that the Time Lords have done nothing to deserve this attack, her father sadly notes that they have not yet done anything to deserve it.
Finally is “Black Sun Rising,” which features a trade conference between the Time Lords and the still-peaceful Order of the Black Sun, which the Sontarans attempt to sabotage by mind-controlling a member of the Special Executive to assassinate the leader of the Order. But instead of sabotaging relations and driving the two groups to war, Wardog figures out the ruse and kills the Sontaran, suggesting that the Order of the Black Sun and the Time Lords are, for now at least, allies.
There is something altogether more interesting going on in the 4D War Cycle. Although each story is a self-contained number that builds to a mild twist ending, they are chapters of a larger story that is demonstrably being told out of order. The story gestures constantly towards a grander epic with the scale of his abandoned Sun Dodgers, but one that has been broken into manageable parts and is masquerading as a series of short stories. Given that these are still some of the earliest things Moore has written (“Star Death” appeared at the end of 1980, at which point Moore’s only other credits as a pure writer were a quartet of short stories for 2000 A.D.), this confidence is impressive, and quietly belies his suggestion that a sizable apprenticeship on short stories is a vital step in learning to write comics.
And yet the 4D War Cycle is, in the end, still a collection of short stories. In many ways this makes the swaggering scope of it all the more impressive. It would be one thing to, after a handful of short works, go right back to attempting a three hundred page epic. It is quite another to decide to merge the vast, epic structure with another mode of storytelling. It’s also worth noting the inventiveness of what Moore does in these comics. At the time he wrote them, Doctor Who, despite having been on the air for over seventeen years, had never really done a story focusing on time travel as anything other than the macguffin needed to start a story. Doctor Who uses a time machine to arrive at the location of a given adventure, but with only a handful of exceptions the time machine is never involved in the plot after that, and is essentially never used to create causality paradoxes and non-linear storytelling.
|Figure 161: The Faction Paradox series|
tells of a non-linear "War in Heaven"
fought over the nature of history itself,
and has lots of people wearing skull
This is not a problem as such for Doctor Who - there are ultimately more stories to be done in the mould of “Doctor Who shows up somewhere and has an adventure” than there are using the well-worn tropes of time travel. But it’s still telling that Moore dramatically expanded the scope of what Doctor Who could do, doubly so given how flexible a format Doctor Who was to begin with. It’s also telling that Moore’s expansion of Doctor Who’s premise stuck and had considerable influence. The idea of a “time war” became a major feature of Doctor Who in the 1990s when it reincarnated post-cancellation as a series of novels, and is a fundamental element of the mythology of its post-2005 incarnation, which, under writer Steven Moffat, is as addicted to causality paradoxes and non-linear storytelling as Alan Moore is to iambs and using the same image at the start and end of a story. And the similarity is not accidental - Russell T Davies, who established the Time War for the post-2005 series, is a die-hard comics fan who explicitly referenced the Deathsmiths of Goth from Black Legacy in a Doctor Who prose piece he wrote. And Davies is hardly the first person involved in Doctor Who to draw from Alan Moore. Lawrence Miles, who wrote much of the “time war” stuff in the 90s, which he spun off into the independent Faction Paradox franchise, has cited Moore as a major influence on his work. Andrew Cartmel, who script-edited the series for its final years at the end of the 80s, drew from Moore’s work repeatedly, and even invited Moore to write for the show, an offer Moore declined. (Cartmel would go on to script one portion of Alan Moore’s The Worm
|Figure 162: The Order of the Black Sun's logo and powers|
amount to, as Moore described it, "the Green Lantern Corps
but with a different costumier. A gothic costumier." (Alan
Moore and David Lloyd, "4-D War," Doctor Who Monthly
Admittedly some of this influence is simply the fact that Alan Moore is one of a tiny handful of respectable literary writers to have gone anywhere near Doctor Who, and his involvement with it, even if it’s only twenty-eight pages of out-of-print comics from the earliest days of his career, adds respectability to the show. Given this it is perhaps telling that Christopher Priest, a “proper” literary writer, made extensive use of causality paradoxes in Sealed Orders, his abandoned script for the television series written around the same time as Moore’s comics. The ideas Moore offered, in other words, were in many ways “in the air” at the time. It’s unfair to treat Moore’s ideas here as entirely novel and visionary. By his own admission, the Order of the Black Sun is an unsubtle rip-off of DC’s Green Lantern Corps, which Moore, as a British writer, assumed he was never going to get to write. What is innovative here is not so much the ideas as applying them to Doctor Who.
Furthermore, on the evidence available, it’s impossible to judge Moore’s larger ambition. The three existent stories leave much about the 4D War unexplained. The nature of Rassilon’s seemingly magical and godlike powers in the opening chapter hints at some larger and more mysterious role intended for him. The actual provocation of the war between the Time Lords and the Order of the Black Sun remains unclear. As does the actual outcome of the war. Moore did not write a sprawling epic of a non-linear war; he wrote a couple of early chapters of something that could plausibly have expanded into one.
Moore was, apparently, intending to further flesh out his idea of a non-chronological war further, but circumstances intervened. Instead left the title along with Steve Moore, who had worked extensively on a plot outline for a third Abslom Daak story only to discover that the editor, Alan McKenzie, had already begun writing a story with the characters. Angered by this, Steve Moore abruptly quit the main title and was replaced by Steve Parkhouse, and Alan Moore followed suit in what Steve Moore has referred to as “a wonderful gesture of support that was remarkable for someone at that early a stage in their career.” While it’s true that Moore, who had not come close to establishing himself as a writer, took a genuine professional risk in quitting, the fact that he did so early in his career is the only remarkable thing here. It is, in fact, the first of many such gestures in his career.
Wednesday, December 4, 2013
|How are you holding up? Because I'm a potato.|
And one more time in case you missed it, the first Tom baker volume of TARDIS Eruditorum is now out. It's nice, rectangular, and easy to wrap.
It’s April 26th, 2008. Madonna and Justin Timberlake are at number one with “4 Minutes,” which exceeds its titular expectations by some margin and stays at number one for both weeks of this story. Mariah Carey, September, Usher, Wiley, and Sam Sparro also chart. In news, a bit of a spat breaks out between Jimmy Carter and the Bush administration over whether anyone ever advised him not to meet with Hamas. Wesley Snipes goes to prison for tax evasion, Grand Theft Auto IV comes out, and Boris Johnson unseats Ken Livingstone to become Mayor of London.
While on television we have The Sontaran Stratagem and The Poison Sky. Perhaps the first question to ask is why this is even a thing. Once the series had brought back the big three villains at the sensible rate of one a year, the issue of returning monsters necessarily became a bit silly. On the one hand, a returning monster is always good for a day or two of press coverage, which is why we have new look Silurians, Ice Warriors, and Zygons now. On the other, after the Master we’re essentially out of villains whose return would play a substantively mythic role within Doctor Who. (There is sort of one exception, but we’ll get to him.) Instead the return of monster become what it was under John Nathan-Turner - an exercise that exists entirely for the purposes of promotion. This is not a bad thing - Doctor Who’s job is to bring ratings, and free publicity of the sort a returning monster gets fuels that. But it means that returning monsters stop being understandable in terms of their legacy. Rise of the Cybermen demanded to be read in light of The Tenth Planet just as Dalek actively invoked The Power of the Daleks and Last of the Time Lord reveled in the icongraphy of the Pertwee era.
But if we try to compare the Sontarans of The Sontaran Stratagem/The Poison Sky with the classic series we find ourselves altogether more frustrated. As Rob Shearman has noted, the Sontarans are not monsters in the generic sense, at least not in The Time Warrior. They’re a single character, Lynx, who’s defined in terms of the Doctor. Even on their return in The Sontaran Experiment, they’re still specifically focused on the individual, with a joke about how they’re a clone species being used to explain why they have the same actor playing a different Sontaran. It’s not until The Invasion of Time that they became monsters in a generic sense, and that was an act of sheer desperation by a production team that was in so far over their heads it wasn’t even funny. And then of course there’s Robert Holmes’s own witheringly pointless revival of them in The Two Doctors, where they finally settled into existing for no reason other than drawing a few headlines.
None of this has anything to do with the new series interpretation of them, in which they’re largely generic monsters defined by their humorously single-minded focus on war. They have names and are clearly portrayed by two distinct actors, so that’s at least something, but they are on the whole monsters defined by an all-encompassing gag. Indeed, there’s a similarity to be drawn to the Slitheen, a set of monsters who are differentiated in name only, and who are largely defined by the gag of their childlike malevolence and flatulence. Which is fine for this slot, which we’ve identified in previous posts as the children-friendly monster-centric two-parter.
And like the equivalent stories in Seasons One through Three, The Sontaran Experiment/The Poison Sky gets what can charitably be called a rough ride from fans. But as this is the last “pure” example of this (Moffat has similarly functioning stories, but they don’t quite so squarely hit the formula Davies sets up for these), it’s worth talking a bit about this subgenre of Doctor Who. Because it is a terribly unpopular one, at least with fans. Audiences at the time seem largely unphased - indeed, most of the time the monster two-parter picks up an AI point from the episode prior. And the real test - is it popular with children - is largely only going to be tackled with anecdotal evidence. It is on the one hand hard to imagine children playing Sontaran at recess, but that’s only arguably the point. Do children stomp around the schoolyard shouting “Delete”? Do they still even do it with “Exterminate”? Or has the nature of how children engage with media changed to where that sort of schoolyard imitation isn’t even the point anymore? Was it ever? Adult descriptions of childhood play ought be taken with maximal skepticism anyway.
Another way of looking at these stories is in terms of whether they are most sensibly approached with foresight or hindsight. Some Doctor Who stories, after all, are clearly made with one eye on the DVD set. Virtually anything written by Moffat, for instance, but also Davies’s season finales and plenty of other episodes here and there. These tend to be more mature episodes that explore conceptual issues with a focus on drama. In contrast are episodes like, well, the monster two-parters and most Davies season premieres - ones where the focus is on the exploration of ideas best realized through spectacle, and where the concept is one to anticipate the realization of, as opposed to one to revisit the exploration of. (It is, of course, unfair to lump the Davies season finales entirely in the first category, as the real genius of those is that they’re designed to work both ways at once.)
In other word, the point of a story like The Sontaran Stratagem/The Poison Sky is not so much the exploration of its concepts as the sheer number of them. And whatever might be said about the story, it does largely manage this. There’s an awful lot going on - the return of UNIT, a bunch of bits about soldiers and guns, evil GPSes, environmentalism, Donna’s family, the Rattigan academy, and Freema Agyeman getting to enjoy a villainous turn. Plus Sontarans. None of it is explored in any particular depth or detail, but that’s not really what it’s there for. It’s there to be fast-moving and to change focus on a regular basis. This is Doctor Who as a succession of high concept set pieces - a format it’s taken repeatedly in the past.
Yes, it looks simplistic compared to Doctor Who that embraces Aristotelean storytelling and works to unify all its bits into a single coherent thematic statement. But the idea that Doctor Who is supposed to tell self-contained dramas is hardly obvious. It’s a show with deep and clear roots in the serial as a form. And that survives in stories like this, which are structured as an episodic serial with most of the episodes sutured together. For all that The Sontaran Experiment/The Poison Sky does little to actually bring back the classic series concept of the Sontarans, the truth is that this is closer to the storytelling of the classic series than almost any other story in Season Four. And the same can be said of Rise of the Cybermen/Age of Steel and Daleks in Manhattan/Evolution of the Daleks.
There’s a case to be made that the problem is simply that this sort of storytelling has dated badly, and fares particularly badly when shoved into contrast with the tropes of the new series. The Sontaran Stratagem/The Poison Sky, in this view, would work fine if only they didn’t waste time with Donna’s feelings about her family or with the scene in which Martha confronts her dying clone. But this sort of emotional content belongs to a fundamentally different sort of storytelling than the set piece driven serial. This may be true, but it sounds for all the world like a spurious justification for why Doctor Who shouldn’t have so many feels in it, which is to say, like the domain of stereotypically male fandom complaining about how there are women who have the temerity to like their favorite sci-fi show while still not sleeping with them. As such it should be, if not rejected out of hand, at least treated with considerable suspicion.
Ultimately, though, what all of this is circling around is the fact that there are clearly two ways of watching Doctor Who, and that the way that anybody who would ever give a damn about this blog does it is very much the weird way. The Sontaran Stratagem/The Poison Sky is an example of a style of episode designed to air on a Saturday evening and entertain a transient audience of people who are tuning in. In many ways, then, the most surprising thing is how quickly it’s dated. This episode only aired five years ago, but it already feels like an artifact, and not just because of its fascination with GPSes (which, much like Rise of the Cybermen’s fascination with cell phones, already felt just a bit dated when it aired). It’s no surprise that Moffat has moved away from this type of storytelling, because Moffat’s audience is a fundamentally different sort of audience - one in which a growing share, likely soon to be a majority if it isn’t already, watches the show not on transmission but either time-shifted or on iPlayer. In other words, the audience who watches Doctor Who because it’s what’s on television when they happen to sit down is dwindling while an audience of people who make an active effort to watch that specific show is growing. When you figure that at least some of the people viewing on transmission are appointment viewers who happen to have the time free and a television instead of a laptop you end up with a clear majority of viewers who are not watching casually.
That doesn’t mean they’re fans in the anorak sense of that word, but it does suggest a very different sort of engagement than the sort that justifies The Sontaran Experiment/The Poison Sky. This explanation, notably, avoids any annoying business of guessing what episodes work “for kids” (a topic adults are likely to be serially wrong about anyway. If I were betting money on what episodes this season resulted in children playing based on them, I’d guess Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead. They may be the episodes least focused on childhood concerns, but the game of “if you step in a shadow you’re dead” is so straightforwardly playable) and instead focuses on the nature of television.
What, then, do we do with the concepts that are in place? They are a loose hive, to say the least, in many ways epitomized by the arbitrary detail that ATMOS, in addition to reducing emissions, contains a GPS system. Other than the fact that both involve cars, there’s next to nothing that connects these two things. Similarly tenuous is the connection between an alien plot to terraform the Earth and human pollution, much as the story tries to take a moral stand on it, or, for that matter, why rescuing Martha was a meaningful prerequisite to nipping back to the Rattigan Academy to actually defeat the Sontarans. There’s a lack of connection to any of the set pieces.
But, of course, what did plastic daffodils, phone cords, prophetic Magritte paintings, James Bond villains, children’s toys, and a circus have to do with one another? Which is to say, since when has congruence been a pre-requisite for Doctor Who? But there’s a difference here. Terror of the Autons is made up of concepts that are fuzzy around the edges. Whereas in The Sontaran Stratagem/The Poison Sky the great strength of the revived Doctor Who becomes something of a weakness. All of its conceptual clarity makes this episode a jumbled hodgepodge instead of an exploration of the spaces between concepts. The whole thing is too immaculately done and precise to function as a marvelously messy serial. If there’s a problem - and I’m still not entirely convinced there is beyond the fact that this is not the most exciting thing to come back to when rewatching the series. Which is a valid objection. But in the end, so is the fact that properly appreciating Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead requires going back to it after watching the bulk of the Matt Smith era. We can at least say that no other show on television in 2008 was going to give us evil GPSes, potato-headed aliens obsessed with war, Bernard Cribbins, a military thriller, and a school full of annoying genius teenagers. It doesn’t beg to be seen again, but in 2008 that’s still not a requirement.
Tuesday, December 3, 2013
If you missed it on Monday, the fourth TARDIS Eruditorum book, covering the first part of Tom Baker's tenure as the Doctor, is now out. Thank you for supporting the blog.
|It doesn't taste anything like chicken!|
It’s April 19th, 2008. Estelle remain at number one, and the only new entry into the charts at all is September with “Cry For You.” Chris Brown, who violently beat his partner, is also still in the charts. In news, Delta and Northwest agree to merge to become the world’s biggest airline, and Silvio Berlusconi starts his third stint as Prime Minister of Italy.
On television, meanwhile, we have Planet of the Ood. It’s interesting that this is the second consecutive story to have a direct shout-out to the Hartnell era. But where The Fires of Pompeii was just a moment of arch-fannishness (albeit the most rawly fannish in-joke the series had produced to date, serving as it does no narrative function whatsoever), Planet of the Ood’s invocation of The Sensorites is a deliberate reference confirming something Davies had floated on Doctor Who Confidential when the Ood debuted. Davies, in other words, actively wants the Ood to be read in light of an obscure monster from a terribly unloved story in Doctor Who’s first season.
The Sensorites is an odd duck of a story. It suffers even more than most 1960s stories from its languid pacing, and to a modern eye seems terribly cliche. But it is in practice a story that is cliche because of how often it’s been imitated. Indeed, upon reflection it is the story that introduces the idea that the alien can be a sense of wonder instead of terror, as what appear to be terrible monsters at first are steadily revealed to be gentle, kindly, and even timid creatures. (Note how this is paralleled closely with Susan’s awed description of her homeworld - it’s not a side detail, it’s the entire point of The Sensorites)
This is useful background for Planet of the Ood, which begins by pretending to be a story about monsters and ends somewhere almost entirely different. At first we are led to believe that the story is as it was in The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit - a story about the Ood being taken over to go bad in some fashion. The iconography of the episode encourages this, with the problem afflicting the Ood being that their eyes turn red and they start killing things. Under standard Doctor Who iconography, this means possession, especially given that this is historically what the Ood are for.
So the story appears straightforward. And yet even from the start it’s clear that there’s going to be some sort of comeuppance for the evil corporation. For one thing, there’s an evil corporation, and standard Doctor Who logic draws conclusions from putting an evil corporation in the first act. More broadly, the Ood are a pointedly unanswered question. The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit raised the possibility that there was more to them than appeared, but also never quite rocked the boat.
This tension underlies everything in Planet of the Ood. The plot consists, broadly speaking, of the Doctor working out a mystery, namely what’s up with the red-eye. But in this case the plot isn’t the bulk of what happens. The Doctor’s investigation provides our two main characters with motivation, sure, but the investigation isn’t what happens. What happens is that the Ood rise up and liberate themselves while the Doctor is investigating what is subtly the wrong mystery. Indeed, more than anywhere in the new series, the Doctor is a complete bystander here. His only role is to be called upon by Ood Sigma to bear witness to the final step of the revolution. Everything would have played out exactly the same if he’d never arrived.
Tellingly, then, all the clues the Doctor acquires are clues to the wrong mystery, and ones that steadily dismantle the previous assumptions about what the Ood are. The key moment in this regard is when the Doctor casually discards what had been one of the operating assumptions of the Ood, that they’re a race of natural servants. It’s telling that this is done as a sort of belated reasoning - a case of applying refrigerator logic to The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit and going “wait a moment, the science underlying this science fiction is crap.” The point, in other words, isn’t just about a misdirection within the story where one plot obscures the other. It’s a more fundamental issue - one in which the entire framework in which we consider the story turns out to be wrong.
And yet there’s only so far in this direction that we can go. After all, the framework we consider the story in is, ultimately, one in which the Doctor saves the day. But that has always introduced a problem, which is that it’s still always a narrative in which oppressed populations are saved by the noble intervention of an outsider. Specifically a white British dude. There’s no easy way to strip empire out of Doctor Who’s underpinnings. Even if the show rails against imperialism - and it usually does - it’s still a story about a well-heeled British man who travels and saves other people. The fantasy of empire can’t be stripped out of the Victorian adventurer tradition from which the Doctor hails.
This crystalizes in an oft talked about moment in the story, when the Doctor makes the swipe at Donna about the labor conditions from which her clothes originated. Let’s note a couple of things here. First, of course, on a level of basic factual correctness the Doctor is right. The labor conditions in the textiles industry are particularly egregious, and in a way that is consciously hidden from consumers. To rail against slavery while ignoring the fact that large swaths of the global economy are based on exploitative labor practices is, if not hypocritical, at least shortsighted in the extreme.
Second, however, as the esteemed Jack Graham points out, the Doctor is being a self-righteous prick here. For one thing, who does he think made his clothes? Even if we accept some argument that he meticulously ethically sourced them (and really, the Doctor seems much more likely to just grab something at a random stall on a random planet because it looks nice), that’s only a diegetic argument. The show can’t get away with this because we know full well that David Tennant himself is, in point of fact, wearing clothes that emerged out of the late capitalist economy of early 21st century Britain. And is made by the BBC in the same culture. To issue that critique from a position of authority is fundamentally wrong.
And this is the point of Planet of the Ood. The Doctor is complicit in the system, at least in part. He didn’t save the Ood in The Satan Pit - in fact, he made a conscious decision to prioritize saving the person who looked more like him. He didn’t question the conditions of their labor. However well-intentioned he may be, he’s merely an ally to an oppressed population. And the thing about allies is that they are always imperfect and compromised. They have always come to sympathy from a position of being an oppressor, however tacitly.
Which brings us around to the conclusion, where Ood Sigma converts Halpen into an Ood. This scene, however, requires a little further attention to the overall arc of the story. Over the backdrop of the Doctor’s investigation we see the Ood revolution progress steadily. In the course of this we also see Ood Operations revealed as what it is, the slick PR facade of the beginning falling away to reveal casual brutality of the most basic sort: sadistic thugs running security, grotesque torture and mutilation of the Ood, et cetera. None of this surprises, but it’s part of a meticulous buildup, as is Solana’s declined moment of redemption.
Meanwhile, the true nature of the Ood is revealed, along with the full horror of their condition. We see the Ood not as cute and kind of funny aliens based on the disjunct between their tentacled faces and nicely asking if people would like a cup of tea, nor as monsters, but as scared and hurt creatures singing their song of captivity - a song so awful Donna asks for it to be taken away.
So when the Ood finally rise up we find ourselves in a position where we are sympathetic to the sorts of things we are not normally inclined to be sympathetic towards. Scenes of the Ood slaughtering people are thrilling not just in the “well done action sequence” sense, but in a “punch the air because the bad guys are getting what’s coming to them” sense. We’re even led to a point where, when the Ood turn on their jailers and shove them into cages to be gassed in their place, we broadly sympathize with the Ood.
It’s important to recognize just how radical this switch is. The gassing is, of course, meant to invoke the Holocaust - it’s originally intended as a mass slaughter of the Ood. Even as it’s turned around so that only one guard is gassed, it’s still an image that’s supposed to be titanically unethical in the normal order of things. And yet the guard is so asininely sadistic (his decision to screw around with chasing the Doctor via crane is telling) and willing to slaughter thousands that we just don’t care. The gassing to death of a human being becomes a moment of triumph.
All of this builds to the final scene, where, confronted with the bizarre body horror of a person’s skin peeling off as they become an Ood, Donna admits that she can’t tell what’s right or wrong anymore, and the Doctor shrugs and decides, yep, he’s not judging this one. Because he has no place to. This isn’t his revolution.
And that’s a brave moral statement for Doctor Who to make - arguably the bravest one of the new series. The privileged don’t get to set the rules by which the oppressed rebel. Not even the allies. They don’t get to make tedious speeches about men who never would. They don’t get to be the judges. They don’t get to set demands. They get to get shoved up against the wall like everybody else, and maybe the oppressed will believe them when they chant the slogans of oppression and plea that they’re friends. Or maybe not. Either way, their salvation doesn’t come from the particular moral tact they took. Nobody mourns the Friends of the Ood activist who gets killed in the end. Oppression is too systemic for that. That’s what the point of the whole “who made your clothes” line is - that there’s no way to get outside the system to make a moral judgment, and certainly not one about yourself. How many times did the Friends of the Ood activist take a cup of tea from an enslaved Ood, justifying it to himself that he’d free them one day? And how acceptable is that? The power to answer that is, in the end, given to the Ood alone.
There’s a totality to this argument that the new series, and indeed the classic series has been unwilling to go for. That, in fact, popular media in general usually shies from. (I was just talking to someone about how the history of the X-Men consists of middle class white men coming up with justifications for why a population that’s the target of attempted genocide shouldn’t violently rebel against their oppressors. I should write a book, really.) And of course it does. Dictating the conditions under which resistance is permitted is one of the most basic oppressive tactics in existence. See also the Chelsea Manning/Wikipedia posts. To give up that weapon is, in effect, to give up the entire war and concede that, no, actually, there’s no way out of oppression beyond accepting that oppressed populations are going to rise up overthrow you. And that this will probably not be pleasant, or, at least, not for you.
The secret of alchemy is material social progress. But the mechanism of alchemy is often putrefaction. Fair enough. Up against the wall, motherfuckers.
Monday, December 2, 2013
I am pleased and indeed thrilled to announce the release of TARDIS Eruditorum Volume 4: Tom Baker and the Hinchcliffe Years in print and digital release.
You can get it at the following locations.
Over the next couple of weeks it will appear in other ebook stores like Kobo, Barnes and Noble, and Apple, though if you have e-readers of that sort, I advise buying from Smashwords. Previous volumes, including the soon to be out of print first edition of the Hartnell book, are available from all of the same sites.
This book collects the TARDIS Eruditorum entries covering the first three of Tom Baker's seven years in Doctor Who, from Robot through The Talons of Weng-Chiang. And so it includes:
- Revised and expanded versions of every relevant essay.
- Three book-exclusive Time Can Be Rewritten entries on Managra, Corpse Marker, and The Valley of Death.
- A book-exclusive Pop Between Realities entry on Shadows.
- Book-exclusive essays on the nature of the Master, the TARDIS language circuits, matter transmats, how Genesis of the Daleks altered history, and the true history of the conspiracy.
- Yet another brilliant cover by James Taylor, who discusses his process here.
- Impeccable copyediting by Chris O'Leary.
- Exactly four hundred and seventy instances of the letter Q.
If you do enjoy James's phenomenal cover, mugs and t-shirts based on the design are for sale in the Eruditorum Press store.
On Saturday, I asked what people were thankful for. I'm thankful for a lot of things, but one of the things I'm most thankful for is the community of readers that has formed around this blog, and that are unflaggingly and stunningly generous in their support. Every time I do one of these book launches I usually have a big spiel about this, but I'll keep it short and sweet this time: writing is my job. If you enjoy my work, taking opportunities to support it by buying stuff is what keeps me able to do it.
I expect the second edition of the Hartnell book to be available in early January. The second Tom Baker book will probably be in late summer of 2014. The Logopolis book will be slightly before that.
Thank you everybody. This has been a heck of a month.
Saturday, November 30, 2013
The Tom Baker 1 book is all finished, and will be launching imminently. Hartnell v2 is still on schedule. And that's me releasing way too many books in a short period done with.
I'm in the midst of the first properly gonzo thing I've done in quite a while, so am going to keep this short. In the spirit of the recent American holiday, then, what are you thankful for?
The Tom Baker 1 book is all finished, and will be launching imminently. Hartnell v2 is still on schedule. And that's me releasing way too many books in a short period done with.
I'm in the midst of the first properly gonzo thing I've done in quite a while, so am going to keep this short. In the spirit of the recent American holiday, then, what are you thankful for?